CrimeHandcuffed and Arrested for Not Paying a Traffic Ticket
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The police officer returned Angela-Renee Coakley’s license and registration and asked for the keys to her car. It was midafternoon on one of the first nice days of spring, and Ms. Coakley, a 53-year-old event and concert producer from Brooklyn, had driven to Staten Island to do some errands. Instead of finishing them, she would be handcuffed, taken to the local precinct to be fingerprinted and locked in a cell — all for failing to pay a traffic ticket. “I was virtually moved to tears,” she recalled a month later, smartly dressed and awaiting her turn in a Staten Island courtroom. “It was all surreal and ridiculous — for a fine.”
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In New York State, a driver can lose her license for reckless behavior on the road, like driving under the influence of alcohol or accumulating too many.
But more often than not, licenses are suspended for outstanding debt : If a person fails to pay a traffic ticket or does not show up in court to dispose of it, the court can notify the Department of Motor Vehicles, which then imposes a “scoff” — short for scofflaw — that suspends the person’s driving privileges until the debt is paid.
Nearly two-thirds of all license suspensions are for failure to pay tickets or failure to appear in court, according to D.M.V. data. These suspensions are not a rebuke for poor driving; if the motorist had paid her ticket, she would still be allowed on the road. Yet the consequences are just as stiff: Anyone caught driving with a suspended license — whether or not she is aware of it — may be arrested.
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The police and prosecutors say that suspending drivers’ privileges for unpaid tickets and pressing criminal charges against those who continue driving is simply a matter of law and order. According to Staten Island’s district attorney, Michael McMahon, pedestrian injuries in the borough are up 30 percent so far this year, a guiding factor in how the department handles these cases.
“It’s not about someone paying a fine,” Mr. McMahon said. “It’s about someone getting a ticket for violating a law in how they operated their vehicle, most times in an unsafe fashion, and it’s the danger that poses to the people of Staten Island.
“That’s what it’s about.”
But advocates contend that in yanking motorists’ licenses to force them to pay fines, the state is acting less as a defender of public safety than as a collection agency.
And now state lawmakers are getting involved. In late April, Senator Timothy Kennedy, chairman of the Transportation Committee, introducedthat would end the practice of suspending drivers’ licenses for failing to pay traffic tickets or failing to appear in court.
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Mr. Kennedy said that in his district in Buffalo, one of the poorest in the state, the cycle of unpaid tickets and driver’s license suspensions can be financially devastating. He said he expects to hold a vote on the bill this month in the Senate’s Transportation Committee. His bill would also let drivers pay their fines in installments.
According to a group of advocacy organizations that supports the bill, the Driven by Justice Coalition, the practice of suspending driving privileges for lack of payment is more extensive, and causes more enduring harm, than previously known.
In 2016, New York State issued 679,000 driver’s license suspensions for a failure to pay fines or show up in court, according to D.M.V. data obtained through a Freedom of Information Law request by the National Center for Law and Economic Justice. Nearly half of those suspensions were still unresolved a year later.
Since multiple “scoffs” can be imposed on a single driver, it is not possible to determine exactly how many drivers had their license suspended. Butmakes clear that some areas of the state are hit much harder than others.
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In half of all New York ZIP codes, there were a little more than three suspensions for every 100 residents old enough to drive. But in areas of central Rochester — where the majority of the population is black, and over 40 percent live below the poverty line — suspensions were issued at 10 times that rate.
In New York City, Staten Island has the highest rate of suspensions, double that of Manhattan and among the highest of any county in the state. Roughly 23,000 suspensions were issued to residents of the borough in 2016.
On a Monday morning last month, the Staten Island courthouse was full of people arrested on charges of driving with a suspended license, which account for nearly 20 percent of prosecutors’ entire caseloads in the borough. Ms. Coakley sat stoically in the gallery.
On the day of her arrest, she had driven to Staten Island to have her car’s oil changed by a trusted mechanic. The officer cited her hands-free headset as the reason for the stop — and then a search of her license turned up an unpaid fine from several years prior. She had recently moved, and said she had never received a notification that her license had been suspended.
The officer allowed her to step behind her car where she would not be visible from the road before putting her into handcuffs. He then drove her to the precinct for processing, leaving her car on the side of the road. Two and a half hours later, when she was released, she took a $31 Lyft back to Brooklyn, and that night returned to Staten Island with a friend to retrieve her car. Ms. Coakley said she had not driven in the weeks since.
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Ms. Coakley waited in court for hours for proceedings that were over in minutes. Having already paid the overdue fine online, she agreed to complete a driver’s safety class and return to court again, at which point the criminal charge would be reduced to a traffic violation.
Ms. Coakley said she could afford to pay her ticket and associated fees. But for those without the means to pay, a driver’s license suspension can pose a double burden: being saddled with new debt and deprived of driving privileges that are often necessary for making money to pay it off.
Pete Kelly, 45, was also waiting in court that day for his turn before a judge. His tanned face and soil-stained hands betrayed his profession working for a tree-services company. He is licensed to drive almost any vehicle on the road, and he happily ticked some off: spider lift, skid steer, tractor-trailer. “The only thing I really want to get is a Zamboni license,” he said. “That’s last.”
But his proficiency behind the wheel afforded him no special protection when he and colleagues were driving the company’s fleet across the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge one day in March and were stopped at a checkpoint for commercial vehicles. The officer who ran Mr. Kelly’s license found that his driving privileges had been suspended because of a decade-old speeding ticket that he had never paid. He was arrested in front of his co-workers.
Between the ticket itself, the fee to lift the license suspension and the court costs, Mr. Kelly estimates the incident will easily cost him $500. And that amount does not account for the time he has taken off to resolve the case. “I’m losing a day’s pay right now,” he said while awaiting his turn before the court.
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He has little recourse but to pay in full. Like Ms. Coakley, he was charged with aggravated unlicensed operation of a motor vehicle. Prosecutors in Staten Island generally will not reduce that to a traffic violation unless the defendant first clears all outstanding tickets and license suspensions.
But for defendants who have accumulated multiple suspensions, such debts may be insurmountable. Russell Pleasant, a lifelong resident of Staten Island, is facing a $3,295 judgment stemming from unpaid tickets issued on three occasions in the mid-1990s that snowballed into 17 license suspensions. Arrested in February, he was ordered to pay the debt completely or accept a misdemeanor conviction. At age 57, it would be his first.
To earn that amount, Mr. Pleasant would need to work five weeks at the Ikea warehouse where he is now a forklift operator, a job he said he retrained for this winter after the house his family was living in burned down. “There’s people out there that really deserve criminal records,” he said. “I just don’t think I’m one of them.”
Mr. McMahon said his office considers defendants’ ability to pay, but he maintained that the law should be applied evenly to everyone charged with driving on a suspended license. “There are some poor; there are some rich,” he said. “But don’t run red lights, don’t talk with your cellphone and you won’t get a ticket.”
New York is hardly alone in these practices. Forty-one states suspend driver’s licenses for unpaid traffic tickets. But since 2017, California, Mississippi, Idaho and Washington, D.C., have ended driver’s license suspensions for nonpayment of fines and fees.
In Virginia, the Legal Aid Justice Center helped filechallenging the state’s practice of automatically suspending the driving privileges of motorists who failed to pay traffic fines or court costs. In December 2018, a judge granted the drivers a and ordered the state to reinstate their licenses while the case moved forward, setting a trial for August. Similar lawsuits have been filed in six other states.
Which isn’t to say that suspending driving privileges can’t be an appropriate remedy for some misconduct. Marco Conner, the interim director of the nonprofit Transportation Alternatives, which advocates for safer streets, said he would like to see suspensions employed even more liberally for motorists who have driven recklessly — but not to compel people to pay fines. “We do not support, in any way, license suspensions for anything unrelated to dangerous driving,” he said.
For those with no alternative form of transportation, even a suspended license may not keep them off the road.
On the day of his court appearance, Mr. Kelly said he still had not regained his driving privileges. How, then, did he get to the courthouse on Staten Island from where he’s staying in Netcong, N.J., at least a three-hour trip by public transportation?
“You don’t want to know,” he said.
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